She Fled China’s Camps—but She’s Still Not Free

Sayragul Sauytbay, the only person to have worked inside an internment camp in Xinjiang and spoken publicly about it, now faces an uncertain future in Kazakhstan.

Sayragul Sauytbay sits inside a defendants' cage during a hearing at a court in Zharkent, Kazakhstan, on July 13, 2018. (Ruslan Pryanikov/AFP/Getty Images)
Sayragul Sauytbay sits inside a defendants' cage during a hearing at a court in Zharkent, Kazakhstan, on July 13, 2018. (Ruslan Pryanikov/AFP/Getty Images)

ALMATY, Kazakhstan—Speaking to a packed courthouse in eastern Kazakhstan in August 2018, Sayragul Sauytbay—an ethnic Kazakh Chinese national—provided some of the earliest testimony about Beijing’s vast internment camp system for Muslim minorities in its western Xinjiang region. As a former instructor at a camp, Sauytbay had crossed the border illegally into Kazakhstan four months earlier, as she feared internment herself, and now stood on trial with prosecutors in the Central Asian country vying for her deportation back to China.

Sauytbay’s lawyers argued that she would be arrested or even killed for having shared knowledge of the camps, where between 800,000 and 2 million members of traditionally Muslim ethnic groups have been detained since 2017, according to U.S. State Department estimates. Despite Kazakhstan’s strong ties to Beijing, the court declined to send Sauytbay back to China. The ruling was seen as a rebuke of Kazakhstan’s powerful neighbor, and as Sauytbay was ushered out of the courtroom, she was greeted by a mob of supporters, who chanted, “Long live Kazakhstan!”

Then the previously outspoken Sauytbay went silent, engaging in a media blackout shortly after her trial. Now, six months later, the summer celebrations atop the courtroom steps look premature, with her future in Kazakhstan uncertain and pressure from China for her extradition growing.

In an interview with Foreign Policy, Sauytbay, 42, said she fears that she may be sent back to China and that despite the August court ruling, her status in the country remains in limbo. Facing a growing set of obstacles—from attempts to ensure her silence to absent legal representation to having been repeatedly denied asylum status by the government—she said her time in Kazakhstan, where her husband and two children are both citizens, could be coming to an end.

“I am an inconvenient witness. I saw everything [in the camps],” Sauytbay said in a late January interview. “I can’t say that [China is] afraid of me, but they want me to keep silent.”

As the only person to have worked inside an internment camp in Xinjiang and spoken publicly about it, Sauytbay remains a particular liability for Beijing as it seeks to curb the mounting international criticism around its mass internment system.

“I’d love nothing more than to get asylum in Kazakhstan and be a happy mom with my children,” Sauytbay said. “But I don’t know if that is possible anymore. I can’t exclude pressure from the Chinese side on the government of Kazakhstan.”

Sauytbay said she remains conflicted about what to do. She is still committed to finding a way to have her status formalized in Kazakhstan, but she also feels a sense of duty to keep speaking out about the abuses she witnessed. Sauytbay reiterated claims she made during her hearing in August that she was granted access to classified documents that offered new insights about the inner workings of the network of camps in Xinjiang but refused to disclose any details.

“I don’t want to talk about that until I have some kind of protection,” she said. “I’d prefer that protection to come from Kazakhstan, but I might need help from other countries.”

Beijing made efforts to ensure Sauytbay’s silence. As first reported by the Globe and Mail, she received news that members of her family still in Xinjiang had been arrested and possibly sent to a camp by Chinese authorities during her trial in Kazakhstan. Sauytbay said she believes the arrests were in retaliation for her releasing information about the internment system in China and that a few months after her post-trial silence, she received word from contacts in Xinjiang that her family had been released and were now back home.

Sauytbay also said a small group of people, unknown to her, came to her house after the trial and told her to keep silent. The small group of Kazakh-speaking men spoke in vague terms about the Chinese government’s policies in Xinjiang and said there would be consequences for her and her family if she spoke out again.

“I don’t know who they were, but they showed up and said that they know all about me and my family and that if I don’t stay silent, I will be taken to [a camp],” Sauytbay said.

At her public hearing in August, Sauytbay provided new details about the camps, describing the high walls and barbed wire that she believed held around 2,500 ethnic Kazakhs for indoctrination. Sauytbay worked as an instructor at the camp, teaching detainees Mandarin and Communist Party propaganda. She also said she witnessed grave abuses in the camps and inhumane conditions for the detainees, saying that many were malnourished and psychologically abused. Chinese officials have denied such charges, arguing that the measures are necessary to fight Islamist extremism among its Muslim population and that they are guiding “Islam to be compatible with socialism.”

Kazakhstan’s government is still walking a tightrope between acquiescing to Beijing’s demands and keeping public opinion on its side.

Her case has put the Kazakh government in a difficult bind. Kazakhstan remains highly dependent on Chinese investment and has positioned itself as a launching pad for Beijing’s trillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative. But Sauytbay is one of thousands of ethnic Kazakh Chinese nationals with family ties to Kazakhstan who have become caught up in Xinjiang’s crackdown, and grassroots activists have begun calling on the government to do more. Kazakhstan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has recently played a more active diplomatic role in securing the release of Kazakhs from detention in China, but the government is still walking a tightrope between acquiescing to Beijing’s demands and keeping public opinion on its side.

Despite the threats against her family in China, Sauytbay said she has received less pressure from the Kazakh authorities since her summer trial and went out of her way to praise President Nursultan Nazarbayev, Kazakhstan’s longtime autocrat, for his benevolence in letting her stay in the country.

Uali Islam, Sauytbay’s husband, said Kazakh officials have encouraged them to stay out of the public eye as Sauytbay applies for asylum in the country but have not threatened them over speaking out.

This strategy of silence during the asylum process was backed by her lawyer, Abzal Quspan. Sauytbay admitted during her trial that she entered Kazakhstan illegally and was willing to serve a prison sentence as long as she wasn’t sent back to China. The judge gave her a six-month suspended sentence that could be served at home with her family. However, she has since faced a series of roadblocks that have left her questioning her future in Kazakhstan and the legal strategy recommended by Quspan.

According to Islam and Sauytbay, Quspan has grown distant since last summer’s trial and became unreachable during legal deadlines over the last two months. Part of this, they said, is because Quspan was dealing with his sick daughter, who died in January. Quspan told FP that he had been absent and even unreachable during his daughter’s illness and that he asked Saule Abedinova, a Kazakh journalist who has worked closely with him and Sauytbay, to work as a liaison while he grappled with his family tragedy. Quspan said he will continue to represent Sauytbay and that the possibility of her asylum status being denied and her being sent back to China is real.

“The risk is there, definitely,” Quspan said.

Islam and Sauytbay recently accused Abedinova of blocking access to Quspan, spreading rumors about them on social media, and trying to keep Sauytbay silent. Abedinova did not respond to requests for comment prior to publication, but she has denied the accusations on her active Facebook page. Abedinova had been involved in Sauytbay’s case since the August trial and worked as an unofficial spokesperson for the family, telling local media that Sauytbay would remain inaccessible during the asylum process.

In late January, Abedinova signed an open letter, along with a group of prominent Kazakh academics and writers, to the Kazakh government asking for the closure of Atajurt Eriktileri, a local grassroots organization that has been actively documenting cases of ethnic Kazakhs and Kazakh citizens caught up in the crackdown in Xinjiang and which rallied public supporters around Sauytbay during her trial. The letter said Atajurt’s work has provoked discord in Kazakh society, jeopardized good relations between Beijing and Astana, and that the issue of ethnic Kazakhs in China is an internal Chinese issue that should be addressed at the official level by both governments. Similar complaints dealing with politically sensitive subjects have often been a precursor to government action in Kazakhstan, such as when the Kazakh version of Forbes and the news site Ratel.kz faced swift backlash after letters were published about their reporting on the business interests of a former finance minister last year.

Sauytbay still has other legal avenues to pursue that would technically keep her in Kazakhstan for at least a year, but after having her asylum request denied twice, the prospect of Kazakhstan prioritizing its relations with Beijing over its international commitments on refugees is more real than ever.

“There are no guarantees about Sayragul’s future,” Islam said. “I don’t think that keeping quiet was a good strategy for us.”

Reid Standish is an Alfa fellow and Foreign Policy’s special correspondent covering Russia and Eurasia. He was formerly an associate editor. Twitter: @reidstan